Navy Pier, the most popular tourist destination in Illinois, is finally getting the upgrades it deserves.
A concrete peninsula that juts out from Chicago’s downtown into Lake Michigan, Navy Pier saw almost 9 million visitors last year. Even without the updates, the pier is a huge draw because of its singular vantage point of the striking city skyline, the Chicago Children’s Museum, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, its legendary summertime fireworks shows and, of course, its iconic Ferris wheel.
But sophisticated it was not. In a design-centric city, Navy Pier, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, was not quite up to snuff. That’s all changing. The first phase of a multipart renovation has been completed and there’s plenty of reasons to hit up the attraction for visitors and locals alike.
Here are three things we love most about the new Navy Pier, plus what to expect next.
The new Ferris wheel
Opened at the end of May 2016, the new Centennial Wheel is about 50 feet higher than its predecessor, topping out at 196 feet. It also holds 180 more passengers. The seats are actually enclosed glass gondolas that will be open year-round with air conditioning and heat for seasonal temperatures (the previous version closed during winter).
On the inside there are interactive video screens displaying information about Navy Pier plus a time-lapse video of the new wheel’s construction. The iconic landmark is still ablaze at night, too, as the wheel’s bright LED lights illuminate the skyline.
The elevated food options
One of the most eye-roll-inducing experiences of visiting the old Navy Pier was having to choose between run-of-the-mill food chains for a bite to eat. Many of those are gone now; in their place are Chicago-centric dining options that are quick but good.
Big City Chicken has some of the best fried chicken in the Windy City (its pieces are brined for six-plus hours).
Porkchop, a restaurant on Randolph Street’s Restaurant Row, opened a location here and is turning out elevated barbecue.
South Side ice cream institution The Original Rainbow Cone (the original opened in 1926) finally opened a second spot here. Come for towers of brightly hued scoops.
Next up? Craft cocktail lounge Tiny Tavern from the folks behind the respected (and popular) Tiny Lounge will open in late summer/early fall.
The new look
We’re all for nostalgia, but the old Navy Pier looked more dated than throwback cool. Modern improvements up the sophistication factor and make it just plain prettier to look at. The main promenade on the south side of the pier has been beautified with better views and access to Lake Michigan — think sleeker redesigned benches, boat kiosks and planters. New trees and plants, all native to the greater Chicago region, have been brought in as well.
The impressive Wave Wall has — you guessed it — a wave-like appearance that connects a promenade to the area where the Ferris wheel sits via a vast set of curving stairs with glass slats that glow at night.
A new interactive fountain has more than 250 programmable water jets (they’ll emulate the movements of waves, fish or bird flocks) in the summer. Come wintertime, the space will be converted to a large ice rink.
What’s up next
Future stages of Navy Pier’s development will include something that should have been added years ago — a yet-unnamed boutique hotel at the far-east end of the pier. It will no doubt have awe-inspiring views of the city skyline, Lake Michigan and beyond.
The east side also will get new restaurants and nightlife establishments, as well as more green space.
Inside, look for an updated indoor botanical garden and an expansion of the beloved Chicago Children’s Museum.